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Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Best Films of 2013 (So Far)

Left to Right: Julie Delpy as Celine and Ethan Hawke as Jesse
Photo by Despina Spyrou, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

THE BEST FILMS OF 2013 (so far)
by Joshua Handler

2013 has been a great year so far for independent film.  I have now seen 93 releases, and while many were quite bad, far more were good or excellent.  The films on this list were chosen only from those that I've seen that have been released in theaters or on VOD, not those shown exclusively at film festivals or press screenings.  There are numerous films that I would include on this list, but they have not been released yet and are coming out soon (The Spectacular Now and The Rocket).  I have included in bold a short reason why the film stands out.  Without further ado, here are the best films of the first half of 2013:

Hadas Yaron as Shira
Photo by Karin Bar, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
10. FILL THE VOID (Dir. Rama Burshtein)

Why?  Its sharp sense of observation.
Fill the Void is the directorial debut of Rama Burshtein, and what a debut it is.  The film is a drama that gives a glimpse inside the world of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Tel Aviv and tells the story of an 18-year-old girl, Shira (Hadas Yaron), who is pressured into marrying her dead sister's husband.  Fill the Void is stunningly-observed, richly filmed, dramatically understated, and features strong performances from the cast.  It is a very unique film from a director who obviously has a passion for her story.

A scene from “Safe Haven” in V/H/S/2, a Magnet Release.
Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.
9. V/H/S/2 (Dir. Simon Barrett, Jason Eisener, Gareth Evans, Gregg Hale, Eduardo Sánchez, Timo Tjahjanto, and Adam Wingard)

Why?  Its insanity.
One of the craziest horror films I've ever seen, V/H/S/2 is the sequel to 2012's V/H/S, but can be seen as a standalone film because it has no narrative relation to the first (I haven't even seen the first).  Almost every part of this anthology is inventive, scary, and hilarious with Evans and Tjahjanto's "Safe Haven" being the best.  It serves as the film's centerpiece and is the goriest and most over-the-top piece of horror I've seen in ages.  This movie was just released on VOD and will be released in theaters on July 12.

Courtesy of Sundance Selects
8. THE ANGELS' SHARE (Dir. Ken Loach)

Why?  Its heart.  
This was one of the sweetest movies I've seen this year.  I won't give a plot description, but what I will say is that it has a huge heart, fantastic performances, a foul mouth, and won the Jury Prize at Cannes last year.  It had many opportunities to fall into cliché, but didn't, and I felt like I was walking on air after The Angels' Share was over.

Courtesy of Sundance Selects
7. BEYOND THE HILLS (Dir. Cristian Mungiu)

Why?  Its gut punch.  
A slow burner if there ever was one, Mungiu's Beyond the Hills won the Best Screenplay and Best Actress awards at Cannes last year.  I don't want to tell you anything about Beyond the Hills, as it, like many others on this list, has a story that is best left completely unspoiled.  Don't go in knowing anything about this film.  Beyond the Hills' story is so incredibly horrifying that mid-way through, I had to remind myself that it is based on a true story.  Beyond the Hills smartly and provocatively explores the clash between secular life and religious life in rural Romania.  The acting by Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur goes to a level beyond acting and Mungiu's steady directorial hand guides this film to its disturbing conclusion. No film has delivered a gut punch like this one this year.

Credit: Ken Woroner
6. STORIES WE TELL (Dir. Sarah Polley)

Why?  Its original style of storytelling.
Sarah Polley is quickly establishing herself as one of the new masters of cinema, even with only three features under her belt (Away From Her, Take This Waltz, and Stories We Tell).  Stories We Tell is a narrative documentary that emerged from Polley asking her family to tell stories about her mother.  This could have been boring as hell, but under Polley's direction, it is a masterpiece of modern filmmaking.  The film is a drama, mystery, and family document all in one.  Polley structures this film beautifully and creates a heartfelt portrait of her mother and her family and has that rare ability to pull the rug out from under us with skill.  Do not watch the trailer or read anything else about this film.  Thank me later.

Fran Kranz in Joss Whedon’s MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING.
CREDIT: Elsa Guillet-Chapuis
5. MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (Dir. Joss Whedon)

Why?  It's the Shakespeare adaptation that makes Shakespeare fresh again.
Right off of The Avengers, Whedon gathered his friends to film Much Ado About Nothing.  The movie was filmed in 12 days at Whedon's house in black and white with the original dialogue and a low budget.  With a talented cast, gorgeous cinematography, and a nice score, this Much Ado makes its centuries-old source material feel new again.  The cast has superb comedic timing and all perform their roles with ease.  It doesn't get much better than Much Ado About Nothing in terms of summer fun at the movies.

Courtesy of RADiUS-TWC
4. TWENTY FEET FROM STARDOM (Dir. Morgan Neville)

Why?  It tells an important story with energy and power.
Twenty Feet From Stardom is a documentary about backup singers and their careers.  It is a rousing piece that is energetic, fun, yet tinged with sadness.  The information presented is fascinating and some moments gave me chills.  The film is short and efficient, but packs a punch.

Courtesy of Breaking Glass Pictures
3. LAURENCE ANYWAYS (Dir. Xavier Dolan)
Why?  Suzanne Clément's performance and Xavier Dolan's unique vision
Laurence Anyways is a 168-minute-long film that follows Fred (Suzanne Clément) and Laurence's (Melvil Poupaud) relationship over 10 years and what happens when Laurence tells Fred that he wants to become a woman.  Clément's performance is emotionally potent and subtly beautiful and Dolan's unique eye for detail and daring artistic vision make this an affecting love story.

Siham and Amin Embrace
Courtesy of Cohen Media Group
2. THE ATTACK (Dir. Ziad Doueiri)

Why?  It's a Middle Eastern Conflict film with a message of peace.
The Attack stands out not only for its heartbreaking performances, memorable score, or vivid cinematography, but mainly for its message of tolerance and peace in the Middle East and its sharp exploration of the Conflict.  The film tells the story of an Arab-Israeli surgeon who finds out a dark secret about his wife.  Director Doueiri explores provocative themes and takes a very even-handed stance on the Conflict, something we don't see in many movies that come out of the region.  It tells a compelling story and has a final five minutes that will break your heart.

Left to Right: Ethan Hawke as Jesse and Julie Delpy as Celine
Photo by Despina Spyrou, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
1. BEFORE MIDNIGHT (Dir. Richard Linklater)

Why?  It's the strongest entry in one of the greatest motion picture trilogies of all time.
What can I say about Before Midnight that hasn't already been said?  Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke have created the most realistic characters ever committed to film and perform their roles so effortlessly that it is impossible to tell whether they are acting or simply living life.  Their chemistry is natural and their characters are so realistic that viewing this film was like visiting old friends again.  The screenplay by Delpy, Hawke, and Linklater is more mature, wise, and funny, yet darker than the previous two films, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset (both masterpieces in their own right).  Linklater's laid-back direction and the long takes only help the characters breathe and live.  This is simply one of the greatest films ever made and takes the romance genre to a new level.  Before Midnight is a landmark film because it tells what may be the last part of one of the greatest (and certainly THE most realistic) screen romances ever made.

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